Almost sixty years ago, Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull created the Sword of Damocles, a head mounted display (HMD) that hung over the user's head from cables and poles rigged into the ceiling. The name, Sword of Damocles, refers to the ancient moral parable of Damocles of Sicily in the 4th Century BCE. In this story, he happily traded places with the king only to find that the king had placed a sword over the throne, where Damocles was required to sit. This sword was held up by just one horse hair.
The phrase in turn refers to the unpredictability of life and the existence of potential danger. It was probably used because of the sheer size of the hardware and how it hung over the wearer's head like a threat. Today, virtual reality users don't have to fear death by device because advancements in virtual reality development have scaled that original HMD to one that fits in a bag and doesn't give the user chronic neck pain. But that's not the only reason that virtual reality is growing.
Improved Software and Hardware Design
Beginning with the actual mechanics of the thing, like everything technological, VR started out with gigantic hardware. It had to be, because technology hadn't yet reached the stage of microscopic computer systems. So, the devices were huge, the computers were huge, and that made it really difficult to sell to a wider audience. The processing power it took to create the simulated environment was massive as well. As time went on, designs were scaled down, processors got faster (and smaller) and eventually we got what we have today. That is, we have devices that can be moved from place to place with ease, as well as a variety of hardware. Some can't be used with out a PC or gaming console. Others have their processor built right into the device, so we have all in one HMDs that can do everything.
Growing Popularity of Virtual Interactions
Even in the early '90s, virtual reality technology was used in gaming when Nintendo launched the Virtual Boy console; the first portable console to display 3D graphics. Virtual reality has been on the rise since 2012 when the first commercially available VR headset hit the market. The Kickstarter campaign raised 2.4 million USD for the Oculus Rift. The desire for and ideas leading up to the virtual worlds we have today have always been there. As the world moved steadily into a digital age, more people entertained the idea of virtual reality. But what it needed was a catalyst, something that propelled VR experiences and devices into one of the most searched topics on Google, and one of the leading areas of technological development for mainstream use.
In March of 2020, the first hint of the Pandemic was beginning to show its effects. Schools were ordered to shut down. Supermarkets were required to impose customer safety quantities. Business places steadily sent employees home, either to work from home or dismissing them entirely. The result was social distancing. This sudden fact of life severely affected the mental well being of billions of people around the world. Those people searched desperately for more ways to have meaningful interactions with the rest of the world.
Enter virtual reality. With its ability to offer meaningful connections across vast distances with a little internet connection and a headset, VR was capable of crossing boundaries like distance, race, and gender. It created connections that weren't possible before. There were groups that allowed this connection long before the pandemic that made the sudden rise seem more natural.
Companies like Ikea and SnapChat set the stage and gave people a taste of what virtual reality could do. In 2018, only 15% of VR owners reported that they used virtual reality every day. In 2021, that number jumped up to 32%. (Source
) In 2022, VR headset revenue reached over 1.8 billion dollars, and is expected to reach even higher in 2023. (Source
) This is due, not only to its ability to connect people, but also to the mainstream recognition it garnered from social media and active use by people who already owned and touted the benefits of virtual reality technology.
Suspension of Disbelief
Gamers were mostly using virtual reality and it really gained most of its recognition from the entertainment industry. The goal of every entertainer ever is to trick the consumer. To trick them into believing the impossible. To trick them into letting go of what they know is real in favor of what is assuredly not. This allows the entertainer to lie to their audience, all for the sake of fun, you see. Nobody watches Spider-Man with the expectation that they'll be bitten by a radioactive spider and leave the theater slinging webs across town. People want to go somewhere they're not, be somebody they're not, and do things they can't do in this physical reality.
Virtual reality helps bridge the gap between what we know logically is real, and what we want to believe. The intensely accurate and realistic simulations, combined with the sensory technology that allows the person to feel as if they're moving around and interacting with the environment, are able to trick the user's brain into thinking that they are somewhere physically that they're not. This is a major plus to gamers, entertainers, training simulations, and any field in which a highly immersive and accurate environment is necessary. Maybe somebody can't leave the theater and actually sling webs across sky scrapers, but they can visit a VR arcade, which are becoming increasingly more popular and available, and sling webs across New York City in a virtual reality Spider-Man game.
Recognition Among Educators and Business Owners
While virtual reality has been a staple among entertainment industry professionals for decades now, that's not where it really got its start. VR technology has been used for training nearly as long. Pilots and astronauts were given flight simulations to test their skills and fortitude in high stress situations, and military groups used it to effectively train its forces. Gaming was simply its gateway into mainstream media.
The basic facts of virtual reality make it an excellent tool for onboarding employees, collaborating, and educating future generations. Because VR is an immersive technology, it creates a space for the user to focus solely on what they see and hear and eliminates distracting outside stimuli. This leads to better information retention, and faster learning rates. It also gives more "hands on" interaction with training and course material, so students and trainees are able to gain real time experience in their field of study before ever handling potentially hazardous materials in the physical environment.
With social media, VR crept into the public's eye in a seemingly passive way, at least from the layman's perspective. Virtual reality developers used excellent marketers to create a buzz around the technology so that the desire for VR experiences grew among the public in an organic way. More buzz meant better investments and better technology as a result. With the benefits of virtual reality among a wide variety of industries, the implementation of virtual reality technology is growing rapidly. While virtual reality has been gaining mainstream recognition since the early 2000s, the pandemic in 2020 was the catalyst that shot VR experiences into the mainstream public. It started with the Sword of Damocles. Now there is the Oculus Quest 2. Only time will show how integrated into public life virtual reality will be in the future.